^ Expand the MBTA, and build residential density to accommodate it ? Be careful what you wish for

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We wouldn’t be having this discussion, right now, in and around Boston, had not, in the past 20 years, a torrent of institutions decided to move themselves into the center City. Universities, hospitals, financial firms, and all manner of technology enterprises had, once upon a time, spread themselves all across metro Boston — and thus so did huge shopping malls and myriad small enterprises serving these institutions’ employees and clients — which is why we have Route 128, 495, 93 and 95. These roads were built to get employees and clients from their homes — all over greater Boston and beyond — to their jobs and their destinations, which were also all over greater Boston and beyond. For the same reason, we authorized and paid for extensions of the MBTA and for a commuter rail system which was needed when the previously existing passenger railroads went bankrupt.

Today, all that has changed. The same roads exist, and the same commuter rail and MBTA, but now almost all of the traffic goes to Downtown Boston, Cambridge, and the Airport. The universities, the malls, the hospitals, financial outfits, and the people all reside Downtown or very close by. Thus our transportation network looks left behind. A great deal of it is as under-used as the rest is hugely overburdened.

Add to the mix the rise of Uber and Lyft, which have put thousands of taxi-use cars onto roads that once served only the very limited number of licensed taxis. People who live in and close to Downtown complain — as they have to — about hundreds of Uber and Lyft cars using local streets and crowding access roads to the Airport; but how could Uber and Lyft not gravitate to where all of the “mobility” action is ? 30 years ago, had Uber and Lyft existed, they’d have used the highway network that now sits wall-flowered — except that, 30 years ago there’d have been no Uber or Lyft, because everybody got around by their own car, and who would pay the huge fees that an Uber would charge for a 30 to 50 mile commute ?

Which brings me to matter of density. Planners talk a great deal about density. 40 years ago, when the approaches to New York City became overwhelmed with vehicle traffic, it was noted that  you could not have meaningful rail or rapid transit without accompanying residential density, which did not exist outside the four major boroughs : and that was why rapid transit and rail was not built much beyond the Queens – Nassau line. Planners there calculated that, if transit and rail lines were built up through low-density Nassau and Suffolk counties, they would draw maybe an additional ten percent of commuters — and possibly much less — and thus the expense of building them was impossible to justify. The same calculation holds today in greater Boston. This is why, today, Massachusetts planners have made such a push for increased residential density and why said density is increasing throughout the neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown. Get those neighborhoods — and maybe the neighborhoods beyond them — more residentially dense, and it will make economic sense to build more rapid transit and rail lines.  This is why Governor Baker’s zoning override bill has big support from Mayors of cities near Boston and why he talks a lot about “transit-oriented housing.”

There is, however, plenty of resistance to Baker’s zoning-override bill AND to the entire policy of increasing residential density. Much of that opposition seems class-based and even racially generated. Quite a few voters in cities in Boston’s core region don’t want to see a flood of low income newcomers, many of them large families, bringing noise and traffic into quiet, single-family neighborhoods. Of course I cannot condone this objection, nor should you : people are different and they have a right to be different, and large families have a right to be large even if it means generating much larger garbage-day pickups and kids playing and making noise — kids do make noise, and its’ just as easy to enjoy the sound of happy kids as to be annoyed by it. Nor can residents of a city claim immunity from change : city life has to be dynamic — has to bring change — or else it withers. Of course I can say this, but voters who purchased a single family home for its spaciousness and the quiet of a single-family neighborhood feel very differently, and it is understandable why.

My beef is not with residential density, which can be a good thing — it’s not bad at all to have neighbors very close by in case of emergencies, or to generate a summer block party, or just to hang out with. No, my beef is with planners using housing density as a wedge to get rapid transit and rail lines built. Rail lines and transit systems cost huge amounts of taxpayer money, require enormous maintenance, and, once built, can hardly ever be unbuilt. (Some railroad lines have been unbuilt, and the rights of way have been made into bike paths and hiking trails. I’m not sure that that is a good thing. The land strips involved bear no relationship to land uses adjacent.) Transit and commuter rail ridership and employees also become an immovable vested interest which, were unbuilding ever a policy option, would prevent the option. Look at public schools : they’re universal, out of good intentions — to educate all, which a modern society needs — but their very universality has made reform — badly, badly needed — all but impossible : school employees and parent councils control the discussion, as we saw during the 2016 fight to expand the allowable number of charter schools. Do we want to make the rapid transit — commuter rail vested interest even more powerful than it already is ? I don’t think so. Thus residential density fails as a policy goal. Rapid transit and commuter rail expansions should stand on their own, not be boosted by altering long-established residential densities.

All of the above paragraph is to say that residential density should increase, if at all, only because people want it to.

And there is another issue at stake here : individual freedom. Why should planners tell us how to live, where to live, or what kind of transportation to use ? Isn’t that up to each of us to decide, based on our own assessment of our own needs ? The first rail lines and rapid transit were built as enterprises by entrepreneurs who saw a market for such transport. They took the risk, with their own capital and that of investors, and they built; and for about 100 years their market vision proved correct : people did want these services. But then came cars, and very quickly the short rail lines failed : because people found they liked much better being able to decide where to go, and when, when they wanted to go , and not when a rail company had a train ready. The rail companies offered rapid movement, but movement only from A to B. Once people had cars, they could move from A to B, C, D, E, and F and more; and they could go there when they wanted to go, and not have to deal with overcrowded trains, or noise, or standing in stations in cold and weather. From trains to cars was just like the move these days from taxis to Uber and Lyft : cars served the individual  needs of free people much better than trains served the collectivization of a mass.

When the short rail lines failed, the taxpayers agreed to assume much of the costs of running those rail lines, along side the fares paid by users; and thus we now have the four transit lines, bus service, and the commuter rail, all of it paid for largely by taxpayer dollars, with contribution from users. Is it worth the taxpayer cost ? The “yes” argument is that businesses need a way for their employees to get to work, and many do not own cars, may not even be able to afford them. Students, too, need public transit to get to their classrooms, and most are not old enough to have driver licenses, or else come from away and do  not bring carts which they might be unable to park on our very crowded streets. For these folks, and for many others of us, from time to time, who don’t want to pay $ 25 to park a car Downtown, we the taxpayers are willing to finance such rapid transit as we have, and to pay for the system’s repair and upgrades, even for some expansions, such as the Green Line from Lechmere to West Medford.

All of which is fine; I have no problem with the bargain our State made in the 1930s and 1940s, to assume the financial burden of rail transport that is no longer a profitable private enterprise. I have no problem with the system’s expansions into zones as residentially dense as those it has already served. I do, however, object to having policy makers tell us that we need to live more residentially dense so the State can build more public transit and rail (not to mention “high speed rail,” a billion-dollar device that almost no one will use no matter how beautiful it smacks to those who like eye cake). To do any of this is to put the cart before the horse. Let people live where they want to live, and how they want to live there, to the extent that people have any wherewithal to make such choices. For the same reason, let people who have a car continue to prefer using their own car to get about, and support that choice — or, at least, never, ever attempt to hinder it. The traffic congestion that we now experience is annoying for sure, but anyone who uses public transportation will find a helluva lot of annoyances, many of them worse than anything experienced by car drivers. And I am NOT talking about the delays endemic to the MBTA today : the system is undergoing badly needed repair and upgrades, and General management is doing as much as it can to bring those repairs and upgrades as quickly as feasible. What I AM talking about here is conditions endemic to a mass transit operation : the inflexibility of it : only certain destinations, at set times, with wait times, crowding, and weather. By no means should such a system be a priority over the individual liberty considerations of residence place, residence type, and mode of mobility. These deserve our financial priority. After all, the current shape of commercial and residential destination may change — will change; but transit systems , and housing densities, once built, will almost never be overturned, leaving our future needlessly Prometheus Bound.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



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